Picking Up The Trash

KIEV, Ukraine -- It takes only a few minutes walking down Khreshchatyk after a weekend of festivities and general merrymaking to know that Ukrainians don’t share the same sense of responsibility, obligation and duty that other Europeans or Americans do. That litter underfoot doesn’t belong to them; never did. As soon as whatever piece of trash left their hands, it became someone else’s responsibility. Someone else has the job to clean up that mess. Ukraine is a society of thought without consequence.

If the Soviet Union gave anything to Ukraine, it was the robotic mentality of a socialist worker. Everyone knew exactly what they were supposed to do – and that’s all they did. No thinking outside the box. Thus the socialist paradise on which modern Ukraine was founded absolved people of responsibility. The prodovshchitsya will not sell you milk at the next counter over – she’s only responsible for bread and baked goods. The beat cop has no idea where the nearest gastronome is – his job is to keep law and order. The average Ukrainian doesn’t think about carrying his empty plastic bottle to a garbage can a further thirty feet away because he doesn’t have to – it’s someone else’s job to pick it up wherever he dropped it.

Today, Ukraine’s socialist past imposes upon it consequences more serious than that of failing to secure foreign investments or acceding to the World Trade Organization: a lack of responsibility. And without that, there is no hope for the future and modernity, let alone for WTO accession this year. To Ukrainians, everything from economic prosperity to traffic problems to putting away the trash is for someone else to deal with, not them. The problem with this way of thinking is it relies on the Soviet logic that the government or someone else will always be there for them. Kyiv pensioners picking through the trash to put food on the table or to supplement their income know this fallacy better than anyone. Ukrainians must reshape their minds and take the country into their own hands so that they can fashion their own future and go beyond this mere robotic existence.

Put another way, Ukraine needs leaders to emerge. This can mean even one person who carries his trash a little farther to put it away properly. It means getting a buddy to pick you up in the morning rather than taking the car to work. It means doing a job, like putting trash in its place, though you haven’t been told to do it. It means thinking independently, showing leadership. That’s where the likes of President Viktor Yushchenko should come in.

Of all Ukrainians, Yushchenko should espouse and embody leadership. Instead, time and again, he has dragged his feet and spoken not as a leader, but as a follower.

When speaking, anyway, Yushchenko – whether in front of big American investors in Washington or international financiers here in Kyiv – has only offered platitudes to his audiences as to why they should invest here: Help us. We need the money. It’s a great time to be in Ukraine. He’s pandering to them like children. There’s no rationale behind it; it’s just a lot of hot air.

Investors, and Ukrainians themselves, want to know what exactly Yushchenko is prepared to do to lead them – to convince them why they should bring their investment dollars into Ukraine, to tell them what everyone needs to be do to build the country’s future. Save the bleeding heart stuff for Hallmark, Mr. President. To quote an old campaign slogan of yours, “Ni slovom, a dilom.” (Not words, but actions.)

Yushchenko’s leadership role has all kinds of trickle down effects. His prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, seems content to play the populist by holding the line on price increases in key sectors of the economy. And the average citizen throws trash on the ground rather than putting it away. All of these people play a role in building and reshaping Ukraine’s future. The trash doesn’t get put away by itself, nor should it be only for others to do so. Picking up after yourself is not only about esthetics, it’s about pride, decency, respect and responsibility. So is helping a blind man to cross the road. So is making it on one’s own. So is making an informed choice at the ballot box.

Yet Ukrainians still look to others to do virtually everything for them, be it to put away the trash, to provide them with a job, or for their politicians to provide them with money and a home and even more besides. All of this forms a conscious thought process in Ukraine whereby no one looks to themselves for the answers. I’ve heard many arguments to counter my attacks: There aren’t enough trash bins for the trash. It’s too hard to start a small business here. Why work if I don’t have to? There’s an excuse for everything around here, it seems.

But what is their excuse? What is Ukrainians’ excuse for not wanting to take personal responsibility for their future? The government? The government, and the president, has a huge say in the future of this country, true, but so do ordinary people. The government doesn’t force anyone to litter.

Ukrainians are often fond of pointing out that they are not truly Western European; they are somewhat eastern-oriented as well. Given that attitude, it might also help them to take some lessons from the East. A well-worn Chinese proverb goes “A journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s own feet.”

The people of Ukraine have a job to do. They must take the future into their own hands. It is for them to decide whether Ukraine remains a trash heap or retools itself to become part of a modern Europe.

Source: Kyiv Post


Rob said…
I am a Pole who has witnessed its country going through changes simmilar to the ones Ukraine is ongoing now. It all takes Time. To some degree all your criticism could be read to Poles. Yet I remember being inspired by simple changes we were able to make almost immidietly in Poland: rename the streets, allow demonstrations, replace people in police along with their uniforms, public debates. It was exciting, inspiring, revolutionary and there was feeling of hope and success.
Although you seem to be impation Ukraine and its people are going surly toward its better times.
floradeli said…
I whole heartedly agree about the trash situation. I simply don't believe it sometimes, how can a person sit among the trash, in the forest for example and not be bothered by it.